El Legado: Reflecting with Alfredo Arreguín

Seattle-based artist Alfredo Arreguín is known for his colorful, ornate paintings that reimagine the perception of humans, nature, and mythology. Born in Morelia, Mexico, Arreguín moved to Seattle in 1957 and began his career in interior design and painting after serving in the army. In 1979 he represented the U.S. at the 11th International Festival of Painting at Cagnes-sur Mer, France, where he won the Palm of People Award. In 1980, he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the arts. In 1988 he was chosen to design the poster for the Centennial Celebration of the State of Washington and was also invited to design the White House Easter Egg.

In 1995, Arreguin received an OHTLI Award, the highest recognition given by the Mexican government to the commitment of distinguished individuals who perform activities that contribute to promoting the Mexican culture abroad. His work can be seen in the permanent collections of two Smithsonian Museums: The National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery.

In 1998, Alfredo Arreguín participated as a featured artist at the Northwest Folklife Festival, which centered on Mexicano and Chicano voices in the Pacific Northwest. Now, 20 years after that Festival, we continue to celebrate Mexican American and Chicana/o culture through our 2018 Cultural Focus, Echoes of Aztlán and Beyond.

Arreguín will be presenting on our Twenty Years Reflection: Norte y Sur pannel at this year’s Northwest Folklife Festival to discuss the reflect on the 1998 festival and the progressions of Mexican American and Chicana/o culture over the past 20 years. In preparation for this panel, we have reconnected with him to hear his retelling of the 1998 Festival and how he continues to live out his culture and heritage.

What was your experience of Norte y Sur in 1998?

I got involved in connection with an art teacher and historian who was organizing a few Latino artists to showcase at an exhibition [at the Northwest Folklife Festival]. He made us aware of the Festival and that’s how I really became involved in the exhibition.

I was so fortunate that one of the Microsoft billionaires saw one of my paintings and purchased it for her collection. It was a really incredible thing because it was a painting of Frida Khalo. One of the curators said they went to her home and said that now one of my paintings is next to an original Frida.

How do you think Mexican American and Chicana/o culture has changed over time, specifically within the last 20 years? 

I never feel comfortable about any of the titles assigned—[such as] ‘Hispanic artists’—but I was one of the first ones that arrived here in the 1950s. When I went to art school in the ’50s, in the whole school of art, there was no one who was Latino except for one professor, and so it was very difficult to get any representation. Because as you were viewed as a Latino or Hispanic, they thought you were going to paint a particular kind of art that much more belonged to the other culture than with what was happening in the United States. So, to get work into a gallery, there was this kind of bias—I wasn’t painting Mexican art, I was patining huge paintings of ecological things of the rainforest and things like that.

Because of all this prejudice, I wanted to use my art to be able to open up the hearts and minds of people.

I have seen many more opportunities to exhibit Chicano art. Whatcom Museum just had an exhibit on Chicano art and they borrowed the collection from the Mexican Museum in San Francisco. Then they asked me if I would be able to contribute some of my art, so I have a few large pieces there. Also, the Schack Center in Everett had had a big exhibition on Chicano and Latino art not long ago, as well as the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner.

I have to say that from 1998 to now, another thing is that there has been a resurgence of Mexican folk art, which can be seen in Dia de Los Muertos and such, so this is bringing more popularity to the culture. I think that here in the state of Washington, it’s really nice that all of these venues are opening their doors.

There are some younger artists who are up-and-coming and we are including them in these exhibitions. So I see that galleries are more accepting and are taking Chicano, Mexican and Latino art more seriously.

Building from the Norte y Sur in 1998, what legacy did you hope to leave behind for the next generation? 

One of the things that is luckily happening this year is that Cave Moon Press in Yakima is publishing an anthology of my work from the point of view of curators, museum people, and all of these great people that I’ve met. I’m trying to send them to colleges and universities that have Chicana studies because while there is something in me [that has a conflict with the ego],  it’s also a tool for people to understand. I started in a little backyard where I was painting—you know the usual artist struggle— and now as a successful artist, I have the luxury of thinking about how I can help other artists. So I have a scholarship under my name at the University of Washington, and every year I donate my work for educational causes, human rights, and ecological rights. It makes me feel that at my age—I’m 83 now—that I can feel a sense of peace because these are the things that are magical about art. It’s not [about the fact that] you are going to make a painting, go to the gallery, sell it for lots of money and go travel all over the world. But [instead, it’s about the idea that we can] use it as a tool to communicate. With a painting and music and the greater arts, it is so much easier to approach people. Everytime I work or paint, I feel like I am much more into the spiritual life than into the other stuff.

Rialto II, 2014, oil on canvas, 58″ x 48″ by Alfredo Arreguín

What makes you proud of the Mexican American and Chicana/o culture and heritage?

I have had a tremendous appreciation since I was a child to marvel at how these humble people have an innate ability to create and do wonderful things out of very mundane things. They will create beautiful folk art, and I have been much more interested as a kid in folk art because it was always so magical and approachable.

I was so fortunate to have been born in my Morelia, where I was born in Mexico, and to have that background that was so rich, and [I have been able to] transfer it to another culture that gave me so much. While I’m very proud of the idea that people try to hide their humble beginnings, you have to locate the place where you feel that home is, and now, in Seattle, I feel that this is my home.

It’s this background that truly forms the whole force that comes out of my brush when I paint.

All of the music and culture and language—to come to another culture and to find all of that here, you know, it’s wonderful to find that here—parts of your ancestral home in parts of your new home.

What advice would you give to the younger Mexican American and Chicana/o generation about preserving culture?

Perseverance furthers, that’s my advice. You know, you get up and you get knocked down and you get up [again]. It’s not easy.

But eventually, the most important thing is expressing something so deep about yourself and making a contribution to the culture.

You’re going to find out that a lot of people are not going to like you. That’s how I see the world–you try to make the negative into a positive. When your mind is so busy, you won’t allow the wisdom of the universe to pass through you and onto the canvas because you’re being so distracted by the noise, and so you have to quiet down the mind in order to see the wonderful things that come out of that.

What are your hopes for the Mexican American and Chicana/o culture in the next 20 years?

In 20 years, [I think] all of this transitional art and all of these titles of being a Chicano or being a Mexican artist are going to disappear because more and more, people are expanding their horizons and I don’t think the concerns will be there considering if someone is Chicano or what their gender is will be as important as, what kind of contribution can somebody give us at this time.

I think that this is going to revolutionize the arts scene.

I’m just hopeful that there are a lot of things that are happening like women’s rights, that it is to a point in which it becomes something that changes it. I think we are at the peak where women’s rights and Chicano rights and Native American rights and everything else are going to make it into a more acceptable place of living rather than separating and determining what kind of club you belong to.

Hear Alfredo Arreguín’s full reflection at the Twenty Years Reflection: Norte y Sur panel at this year’s Northwest Folklife Festival, taking place on Monday, May 28 at the Narrative and Cultural Cuisine Stage at 1:15 PM. Learn more here.

To learn more about Northwest Folklife’s 2018 Cultural Focus, Echoes of Aztlán and Beyond: Mexican American and Chicana/o Roots in the Northwest, please visit our website.